Lunchtable TV Talk: Not Billy Flynn’s Chicago

Standard

Dear god, I’ve sucked up Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med. I can’t defend it. I don’t know why. I don’t find it very engrossing and find entire episodes have passed without my having paid close attention – and the storytelling, particularly in Fire, leaves gaps, so it would be difficult to tell if it was the poor narrative or my attention span. Case in point: Chicago Fire returned from year-end hiatus, and I fully believed that one of the firemen was left with his life hanging in the balance as a cliffhanger, and when the show returned, he was returning to work. No explanation as to how he managed to recover. Did I miss an episode or is this just the way the show goes? (I realized after seeing Chicago Med and PD that there is a lot of crossover, so some of the story you think you missed might have unfolded in one of the other Chicago shows.)

I think I was seeking a mindless outlet after the mindless OD of House MD, and Jesse Spencer being a bridge between House and Chicago Fire seemed easy enough to cross. It entertains my ear to listen to the shortcomings of accent/dialect retraining. To Spencer’s credit, his midwestern American accent improved over the course of the few seasons that exist. I don’t mind him, don’t mind the woman who plays his partner/fiancee, Dawson, and don’t have feelings about a lot of the cast. But if ever there were an annoying ‘bawbag’ (to borrow from my friends the Glaswegians), the dude who was even more annoying on Sex & the City is him… I can’t remember his real name and can’t be arsed to look it up… but his character is the very loud, heavily accented, very Catholic Chris Hermann.

The captain is likeable but so overwrought as an actor, which I suspect is some holdover from stage training – he is so demonstrative and emotive in all his actions that it is just too much for television (it would make sense on the stage). He was the same as the perpetually tortured Muslim character in prison drama, Oz.

When I ran out of Chicago Fire episodes and didn’t have much more in my to-watch folder, I decided to go for Chicago PD. I find the scratchy-throat voices of both Sophia Bush and Jason Beghe to be just shy of fingernails scratching a chalkboard – and the looks on Beghe’s face along with how his head slightly bobs around when he is getting in someone’s face and being threatening – just a bit too much.

But who am I kidding? It is all too much!

Casting breakdowns – Women are screwed

Standard

I stumbled on this article while having an exciting lunch of rice. Oh, how I could live on rice. But I digress.

The article addresses television casting: “Men can be all shapes and sizes on film; women must be hot.”

While this is probably true 99 percent of the time, I am very interested in cases that go against this pattern. Even where a show is unsuccessful (and maybe is a contributing factor to its lack of success – for example, the short-lived and frankly not very good What About Joan?, which starred the unconventionally/not typically attractive Joan Cusack as the lead and the very conventionally attractive Kyle Chandler as her lovely, doting, devoted boyfriend. If it were not a vehicle specifically for the already well-known Cusack, would the casting breakdown have said, “Normal, frumpy, almost-middle-aged woman – average, no one would take a second look woman”? And if it does highlight some non-mainstream casting, that is the whole point of the show – Less Than Perfect, Mike & Molly, Ugly Betty – and no one could really claim that America Ferrera is not attractive. She was just made to look like a misfit in the fashion-model world. Nor is it even fair to say that the stars of the aforementioned shows are not attractive – but the premises and way the roles are written emphasizes that they do not fit into some scripted beauty ideal).

Why is it that if that were the casting description, and the eventual casting decision, people would question, “Why would he be with her?” about the hot boyfriend, but no one really questions that hot women would choose TV’s less-than-attractive men. (And here we might hear the “men have power/money” argument, which could explain many older men-younger women connections on TV, but it does not explain the King of Queens or the According to Jim phenomenon. In real life, I suppose I meet a lot more women of all types who consider men as a whole package, so the looks are not the deciding factor. I suppose TV reflects real life in this way – men are not as likely to look beyond the surface. And on a general level, most people are judging on appearance.)

Lunchtable TV Talk: Shameless

Standard

In a hazy and unpleasant summer spent largely in Berlin a few years ago, I was exposed to the original UK version of Shameless, which I did not care for at all. The US version of Shameless, on the other hand, I enjoyed right away, although I found it to be both bawdy with its off-color jokes, and difficult, digging into struggles with poverty, family problems, mental illness and identity. It has always been reliably entertaining, but the third and fourth seasons really kicked it into high gear.

In the lead-up to the new season of Shameless (already season six!), I have been thinking about how it developed into the confident, moving and human show it is. Its real power surfaced through deeply compelling characters whose backgrounds, full of imperfections and flaws, have been fully fleshed out to make the characters into real people: the Gallagher family. A drunken, drug-addled patriarch, Frank, malingers and manipulates as a narcissistic leech with no concern whatsoever about his family of six kids – Fiona, Lip, Ian, Carl, Debbie and Liam.

It would be easy to give in to the urge to shame Fiona Gallagher, the young, accidental “matriarch” figure who has always held it together to make sure the family is cared for and bills are paid. She had to take on all the responsibilities when it was clear that Frank wouldn’t, and their mother, Monica, was mentally ill (and left them). She had a lot dumped on her and never had her own childhood. So… when Fiona lost it, she really lost it… and in doing so, let everyone in the family down. But when you consider that Fiona was thrust into her role when she was just a child herself, it’s a bit easier to understand how she would act out. And keep making mistakes. And why the consequences are so much more devastating. Her role models/examples have continued to fuck up in worse ways than she could ever do (although her criminally manipulative, ne’er-do-well father, Frank, commits crimes, misdemeanors and trespasses and always seems to get away with all of his hijinks, depravity and dereliction). But for Fiona, the stakes are higher – always higher.

Fiona’s second-in-command, Lip, is a self-destructive genius who steps up to the plate when he needs to. Ian is another story (see the next paragraph). Carl is a not-too-smart would-be criminal (any smarts he has are used for scheming). Debbie has low self-esteem as she hits puberty and falls into some of the stereotypical traps (seeking out a sex to boost self-esteem, getting pregnant purposely to feel “loved”). Liam is a baby/toddler and is only interesting in that 1. he is black and no one knows or cares why, 2. he has to be cared for, and the challenges of rearing him play into larger plot points.

I would not be exaggerating, though, to say that the show turned a corner and became great in its telling of the Ian and Mickey story. Ian is the sensitive one in the family, very caring and yet rule abiding (he wants to join the military). He is also gay, which the family knows about and supports. During the run of the show, he falls in love with a tough and totally closeted neighborhood guy, Mickey Milkovich. I could rehash the way his coming out story unfolded when he realizes he is in love with Ian, but it’s better to watch. It’s also been written about in the perfect way. The deft handling of both the coming out and the subsequent relationship, which has been tested not just by the societal constraints of who the two of them are but also by the emergence of Ian’s mental illness, is nothing short of the best TV has to offer.

It is not necessarily fair to focus only on the core cast of characters because some of the supporting characters are essential – the neighbors/friends, Kevin and Veronica, are rich, viable stories of their own. Sheila, the agoraphobic mother of Lip’s disturbed girlfriend Karen and eventual paramour for Frank, is unassailably… weird. Some supporting parts are less effective (Frank’s daughter Sammi and her son Chuckie) even if they were important to the plot. But all the supporting parts hold the viewer’s attention and get the story where it needs to go.

But no supporting role(s) have been as key as the Milkovich family. Partly the sister Mandy, who is pivotal in Lip’s life – demanding that he live up to his potential (since he seems to be the only one in the neighborhood who has any). But most crucially, Mickey, because he and his relationship with and love for Ian form the real heart of the entire show. Others are the body and hold things together, Ian and Mickey are the heart.

I could ramble – clearly I already am. Some shows are good, and I write about them because I pick out one or two remarkable parts that strike me particularly deeply. In this case, though, it’s the whole package.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Parenthood

Standard

In one of those lengthy periods in life when I am at best misguided and at worst in the throes of  losing my mind, I decided to watch ALL six seasons of the TV show Parenthood. Widely lauded during its run, I never saw it. And I continued to slog through all the droning, annoying seasons despite being almost perpetually annoyed. I hate watched it in the same way I hate watched the dreadful Brothers and Sisters. How can networks keep making these huge-family dramas in which every possible bad thing that happens happens to just one family? (Sure, the odds are greater when the family has four or more siblings in it, as these stupid shows both do. Parenthood was worse, though, because it also delved into more than just the siblings.)

I recently read an article about how streaming services like Netflix releasing entire seasons of bingeable shows allows the viewer to gloss over the weaknesses in the overall fabric of the show and its construction. We get the whole story at once, which might not be the most technically effective way to tell episodic stories, i.e., we have a 10 or 13-hour movie in some of these series rather than an actual serial. I don’t find that this weakness is evident in made-for-streaming shows… but I do see this weakness (and this might just be personal preference) in shows like Parenthood. I noticed, for example, that in every single episode, someone says (and sometimes more than once in an episode) some variation of “we need to talk”: “We need to have a conversation”, “Can we talk?”, etc. And all they did was talk – endlessly. You would think this would interest me because I loved shows like In Treatment, in which the entire show was just talking – a therapist and his patient in an office. Nothing else. But no. That was riveting. Parenthood is just a whine-fest of misguided self-righteousness. And it is from this starting point that I definitely saw major plot and writing deficits – all smooshed together with histrionic, self-involved characters (almost all of them – not just the dude who was supposed to be the “irresponsible younger Braverman brother”).

I cringe just writing the name “Braverman” down, remembering all of Craig T. Nelson’s toasts and boasts about the greatness of the almighty Braverman family. “He can get through it because he is a Braverman.” The show spins around this ridiculous premise. (Somehow TV families, especially large ones, like to rest on this idea… that because of their size and “complexity”, they are more interesting or special than all other families….).

From the whining and constant hyper-intensity of Monica Potter’s Kristina (it’s either “everything is crap because my son has Asberger syndrome” or “I have cancer”) to the whining “I’m not good enough and am a loser” mantra of the ever-annoying Lauren Graham’s Sarah, from the bitchiness of Erika Christensen’s Julia to the endless, endless, endless crying and whining about everything courtesy of the otherwise brilliant Mae Whitman as Amber, this show is… just such shit. It’s been over for some time, and as such should probably not *still* annoy me this much, but I saw the title in a list of things I had seen and felt irritated all over again!

I want to be able to write something better about it… that is, something more descriptive, at least devoting a bit more effort to making my analysis a bit more constructive. I realize that my view is unpopular, and that I am in the minority, but there is no way to fix this pile of dung.

Lunchtable TV Talk: River

Standard

It is not often that Stellan Skarsgård goes wrong in his choices. Sure, I don’t love Mamma Mia! or The Glass House, but usually his work is worth watching, even if only for his presence (Nymphomaniac comes to mind here).

For me, River is one of the best surprises of 2015. For one thing, it’s “trippy” (as The Guardian refers to it). Detective Inspector John River is a loner who is out of touch with his own feelings but is in touch with visions/hallucinations of dead people and with a deep sense of empathy. All of this is quite unusual for a TV serial “renegade cop”. It could easily be a caricature, but the acting and the storytelling ensure that it does not devolve into ridiculous territory.

Ultimately it turns out to be a study in human complexity and fragility and is engaging at every step – and it’s only a six-hour journey, meaning that it fits neatly into an evening or two (for dedicated binge-watchers). Like most “detective” shows it’s point is to seek answers. But on different layers – not just the cop mystery on the surface. There are always secrets, and having community with the dead allows a bit more insight into those secrets. Seemingly cheesy plot device, but Skarsgård and excellent supporting cast make it work.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Lilyhammer – No experience leaves you unchanged

Standard

It’s been a long time since I watched Lilyhammer on Netflix. And a long time since I moved to Norway myself. It was not a crash-landing as rough as that experienced by protagonist “Johnny”, the alter ego of an American mobster, Frank Tagliano, who goes into witness protection in Lillehammer, Norway after testifying against his cronies. Knowing the reach of the mob and relying on his love for the “Lilyhammer” Olympics (most of us just remember the Tonya HardingNancy Kerrigan saga), Frank manages to get his witness protection assignment in Lillehammer, Norway – which turns out to be a major culture shock not just for him but for everyone he encounters in the community. That includes the police force, social services, his new girlfriend, the hospital system… and everyone else.

He makes a strange bunch of new friends/colleagues, opens a new nightclub and changes the rules to suit him. Through manipulation and brute force, he pushes through quite a lot of his own brand of corruption, intimidation and coercion to impose on the naive, fairness-loving Norwegians. He also forces the residents to look in the mirror (e.g., an episode that deals with racism, refugees and “inclusion” – which is timely now during the recent refugee crisis). Frank can be insensitive and totally politically incorrect (and sexist), but has his own sense of fairness that comes from living in a multicultural society – even if a very limited one like the mob – and this rubs off on everyone around him and comes full circle until he starts to realize new truths about himself as well.

But no experience leaves you unchanged. While the Norwegians eventually bend and comply – and learn – from Frank’s ways, Frank too is softened by Norwegian life.

Lilyhammer was cancelled, so no more of the fun we got for three seasons… but luckily three seasons is an easy binge watch.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Getting On

Standard

Getting On ended its chaos-filled run after three barely noticed seasons. An entire season happened without my ever hearing of it – it was completely under the radar and got very little media attention as TV shows go. We are supposedly in this peak TV period, which could arguably let a lot of quality TV fall right through the cracks. But it would also seem that the wide range of shows would send different tastes in different directions, allowing for exposure to pretty much everything – just smaller amounts for each thing. Then again, as a recent article from The New Yorker aptly points out, Getting On is not pretty. The environment: “Even in an age of downer comedies, Getting On is a hard sell. It’s set in a failing extended-care ward, whose patients are elderly women.”

Doesn’t sound like something most would like – nor something that would be funny, but it manages to be engaging, deeply human and ridiculously funny. It’s also brutal, ugly and true – painfully true.

I recently slogged through all eight seasons of TV’s House M.D. and wrote about it and how House’s misanthropy was perfectly summed up in one of House’s monologues in the first episode, railing against the idea that a person can die with dignity: “It’s always ugly, always….You can live with dignity, we can’t die with it.” House was able to describe this, but I have never seen anything show this truth as effectively or honestly as Getting On did.

Lunchtable TV Talk: House – King of Misanthropes

Standard

House is one of those shows with an egotistical, maniacal, damaged “genius” with special skills at the helm. It never interested me much, despite being a Hugh Laurie fan, as medical mystery procedurals don’t generally keep delivering punches after one season. They hold our interest when they are new because we like novelty – we like curmudgeonly assholes or mental cases (and I do recognize that lumping people into a superficial group like “mental cases” is insensitive and a massive and unfair generalization). There is only so much we can take of assholes, racists, addicts on TV… from Archie Bunker to Adrian Monk, from Hank Moody to almost all characters Denis Leary plays on TV. Dr Gregory House is one of the biggest of all TV jerks, and completely self-involved, self-destructive and does not care how he hurts – or how much – the people in his life. That common thread runs, to varying degrees, through all these “lovable” (or not so lovable) jerks.

I realize it is a bit late to be writing about a show like House. It’s old – it ended ages ago. I was surprised when I watched the first season to see that it was more than a decade old already. I got sucked into House recently after a long, self-imposed foreign-film festival on the homestead. I just wanted some English-language entertainment to occupy my mind only halfway. What struck me first is: how on earth do we, with our short attention spans, manage to follow or care about serialized television shows that go on for 22 or 24 episodes per season? Particularly with these kinds of shows, they run out of steam fairly quickly and become predictable (even in their lack of unpredictability). It still remained mildly entertaining, but when you’re bingeing all eight seasons at once, all 176 plus or minus, it wears out its welcome really fast. I recently read an article in which a TV critic argues that binge watching enables a show to be created expressly for the binge in mind, which means we are less likely to pick out its flaws. This applies mostly to shows created for streaming that go for a max of about 13 episodes. I agree to some extent – nothing’s perfect, whether it’s too long, too short, or skimps on process that adds to plot. These things are designed to stream and ingest all in one go. But these longer shows that get churned out season after season feel churned out. A great slog through mostly mud before occasionally hitting a few smoother streams.

Second thing that struck me, of course, as I am sensitively attuned to these things, and which is not at all a surprise: addicts possess nothing but meanness, diffuse blame and spew denial and insult whenever they can. But House is not the best portrayal of how addiction works. It occasionally illustrates (although more with unrealistic storylines and hammer-over-the-head consequences for the people House works with – his “friends”) the bad parts of addiction. House is openly an addict, and the people around him openly enable it. It is a lot more interesting and realistic to see addiction (particularly in a healthcare setting) in Nurse Jackie. (You can incidentally get a lot better and more intimate view on the work lives of nurses from Nurse Jackie and Getting On than medical shows like House, which have nothing to do with nurses, in any case.) Addiction really only comes into stark focus as season five ends and season six begins, and House goes to rehab. I suppose the “party” could not go on forever.

Third note: I think I kept watching throughout because I like the cast. And for most of the cast, I like them in these roles. I have not really liked Jennifer Morrison in much other than in her role as Dr Cameron. I really have a growing hatred for Lisa Edelstein after suffering (forcing myself to suffer, really) through each week’s increasingly horrifying episode of Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, but seeing her in House makes her look strong, intelligent, thoughtful, insightful. Girlfriends Guide strips away every last bit of the humanity and compassion that Edelstein cultivated in House. I realize the point of acting is to… act, but the characters in GG2D are so distasteful that I can’t see why someone would want to stretch their “acting chops” to stoop so low. Robert Sean Leonard is a reliably good foil, friend and enabler for Hugh Laurie’s Dr House, and Omar Epps has carved out a career of being a doctor on TV.

While there are only so many scenes of close-ups of House’s brooding, thoughtful scowl a person can take, I appreciated the opening episode of House, wherein, as an introduction to his misanthropy, in which he explains to a patient who exclaims, after being probed, prodded and tested that she just wants to “die with dignity”:

“There’s no such thing! Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it. I don’t care if you can walk, see, wipe your own ass. It’s always ugly, always….You can live with dignity, we can’t die with it.”

The Terrika phenomenon

Standard

When I was back in the US during my last holiday I became obsessed with eating Cheerios. In my adolescence, I had a big Corn Flakes habit and could have eaten them for every meal. I can get Corn Flakes in Sweden but not normal Cheerios. Once I got my hands on a giant box of the most bland of oat Os in the world, I ate them from bowls my mom has had since … probably before I was born. In junior high school my then best friend and I used to go to my house for lunch and eat ramen (chicken sesame) in these bowls, which we called “pig bowls”.

I had not really thought of the pig bowls in a very long time. I think about this friend, Terra, often. We have not talked in almost 20 years. She disappeared after we had grown apart, as friends do, but our past friendship makes up so many of my most vivid memories that it’s hard not to think of her for the smallest of reasons. The pig bowls, being back in the US to visit, watching the show House (because T and I saw Dead Poet’s Society together in June 1989, and Robert Sean Leonard – one of House’s supporting characters – and it was a very memorable day), or bumping into people from school on Facebook – people who ask me how Terra is doing since we were like, according to some of the biggest assholes we went to school with, one inseparable entity – the Terrika.

Out with the old

Standard

Finally a new year is upon us. I write “finally” even though 2015 could not have gone faster. It feels like this time last year was just last week.

I have written enough “end-of-year” recaps. Don’t feel like writing more “reflections”. I have come to hate the word “reflections” or any variation of it, “I reflected”, “I had a reflection”. It comes up constantly in corporate workshops, and it has lost all meaning.

It is not that you or I should not reflect. Just… keep doing it continually and consistently, all the time. A new year is as good a time as any to take stock, but why only then?

Happy new year. Await instructions… or people bring me some coffee. Thanks!